When legendary film director John Ford was preparing to shoot one of his greatest movies, The Searchers, he needed to approve wardrobe for his actors, but one was unavailable, so a young assistant director, with the same build as the actor, was sent to try on the costume instead. As Mr. Ford worked the shape of the hat, he complimented his new assistant director on his looks and asked if he wanted to be an actor. When the young man said, “no,” Mr. Ford was surprised. He said he’d made an actor out of “Duke,” meaning John Wayne, and he’d done a good job with that, hadn’t he? The young man agreed but, again, resisted Mr. Ford’s offer to make him an actor. The multiple Oscar-winner director wanted to know, then, just what did the young man want to do? Gary Nelson, all of nineteen years old, looked this master of cinema right in the eye and said, “I want to be a director.”
Gary Nelson followed through on that declaration to become one of the most prolific directors in history. Gary’s rise in the profession happened to coincide with the rise of television and he would demonstrate mastery of comedies, westerns, gritty cop dramas, mini-series, family dramas, and feature motion pictures.
Gary’s move from a working assistant director to taking directorial reigns came from a bit of negotiation from a beautiful actress, Judi Meredith. Judi, a former figure skater, came to the public’s attention as the spunky and cute love interest for the son on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. Becoming much sought after as a guest star on various television series, Judi had also developed a romantic interest in Gary, who was the assistant director on the show, Have Gun, Will Travel. Judi offered to appear on that series, for free, if they hired Gary to direct an episode. The plan worked and his first directing credit was an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel with Richard Boone, of course, playing Palladin in the lead role. The leading lady was Judi and she would become Gary’s leading lady in real life.
Judi shifted her career from acting to raising and caring for their two sons, Blue and Garrett. She was ferociously supportive of Gary as his career took off and he became one of the “go-to” directors in the golden age of television. Their marriage was one of mutual love and support and remained intensely so until Judi passed away in April of 2014.
Judi once stated she could never remember a time when there wasn’t an open script on their dining room table, which was a reflection of work that came Gary’s way as his reputation grew. From the early Westerns, Gary branched into comedy including Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, The Doris Day Show, and many others. Working on the anthology series, Love, American Style, Gary directed a segment entitled Love and the Happy Days which became the pilot of the series, Happy Days.
The shows McMillan and Wife and Kojak marked a move for Gary into directing police dramas, most notably high-lighted by his work on the tough, ground-breaking series, Police Story. It was at this period in television history that the mini-series had become popular and Gary was very much a part of this wave, directing every minute of the twelve-and-a-half hour mini-series, Washington, Behind Closed Doors. This was an unprecedented feat that has never been duplicated. He, alone, directed a 900 page script, working solidly for a calendar year. He filmed during the week and prepped and scouted locations on weekends. The location scout van always included room for Judi and the boys. In its first run, Washington, Behind Closed Doors, was one of the highest rated mini-series of all time. No less a famous director than Stanley Kubrick cited Washington, Behind Closed Doors as one of his favorite television series.
Gary continued to work on television and feature movies, series pilots, series, and mini-series before calling it a wrap producing and directing the series, Early Edition, shot entirely in Chicago. The list of stars who’ve worked with Gary’s direction is a pantheon of recent acting history from Richard Boone, Brian Keith, Sir John Geilgud, John Houseman, Glenn Ford, Peter Ustinov, Omar Sharif, Jane Seymour, Cloris Leachman, Barbara Harris, Jack Warden, Helen Hunt, Alan Ruck, Mel Brooks, Ruth Gordon, Stacy Keach, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Johnny Cash, Beau Bridges, Charles Durning, Robert Vaughn, Teri Garr, Jason Robards, Pierce Brosnan, Jodie Foster, Tony Curtis, Richard Chamberlain, Maximillan Schell, Vera Miles, Rock Hudson, Goldie Hawn, Robert Vaughn, Kyle Chandler and so many more.
When one considers the volume of Gary’s work over a variety of genres through the decades on television and in movies one fact becomes evident: the majority of Americans with televisions have, at one time or another, seen Gary Nelson’s work.